France's lower house of parliament on Wednesday gave strong approval to a tough bill on immigration reform that clamps down on entry for unskilled workers and allows officials to select the best and brightest candidates from abroad.

Lawmakers in the National Assembly passed the bill with a 367-164 vote.

The opposition left voted against the text, which Socialist lawmaker Serge Blisko said amounted to "the organized pillaging of brains," tending to increase xenophobia.

CountryWatch: France

The bill, presented by Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, must go to the Senate, which is expected to take it up early next month. The bill, considered urgent, has been fast-tracked, requiring just a single reading in each house. After review by a special commission, it could be definitively adopted before July.

Religious leaders and human rights groups have joined the left in opposing the legislation, calling it too restrictive and urging lawmakers to strike a balance between excessive openness to immigrants and xenophobia.

The measure also drew criticism from former French colonies in Africa, from where many immigrants to France hail. Sarkozy — looking to run for president in next year's elections — was leaving on a trip to two of those nations, Mali and Benin, just after the vote.

The minister defended himself against claims that his proposed reforms were meant to attract extreme-right voters.

"We don't hold the positions of the extreme right because we don't want them," he said.

Last month, Sarkozy provoked an outcry when he told those who don't like France to leave, recalling the words of extreme-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen: "Love France or leave it."

Hours before lawmakers gathered, Sarkozy reversed the abrupt weekend expulsion of a Malian mother and her two young children, ordering them returned to France after their case raised protests. It went against an Oct. 31 order by Sarkozy suspending expulsions of children in school until the end of the academic year.

Sarkozy has long stressed the need for France to tighten its rules on immigration.

Speaking Tuesday on prime-time TV, the minister argued that France could not provide jobs and housing for all those who come, and said that many other countries, such as the United States or Germany, also hand-picked immigrants.

"Why would France be the only country in the world that cannot freely decide who has the right to come into our home, and who is not welcome?" he said on France-2.

The legislation would set up a kind of quota system — without explicitly saying so — and create a three-year "competence and talent" residence card for highly skilled foreigner workers. It is aimed chiefly at athletes, artists and academics.

Foreigners already in France would face new obstacles to bringing in relatives, and the bill would scrap a measure that allows immigrants in France more than 10 years — even those here illegally — to apply for French citizenship.

The legislation is France's second immigration reform in three years, and comes amid a broader crackdown on illegal immigration that has been gathering momentum across Europe. Polls have shown immigration is a top concern among the French with a year to go before presidential elections — in which Sarkozy is expected to run.

Even some of Europe's most open countries have recently stiffened immigration legislation. The Netherlands has required immigration candidates to pass an entrance exam testing their knowledge of Dutch culture before being allowed to settle in the country.